December 4, 2023

Cheap and Ugly in the Capitol

September 16, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

Calvin Griffith

Calvin Griffith (AP Photo/John Duricka )


Upon Googling: “Cheapest Baseball Owners,” the first article led with the following description: “cheap, greedy, tight-fisted, miserly, penurious. A discussion of the penny-pinching figures who historically have ruled the game of baseball includes Charlie Comiskey—of Black Sox fame, Harry Frazee—who sold off Babe Ruth, and Calvin Griffith, who infamously told a crowd in the Twin Cities that DC was too Black for baseball.”

There are so many jackasses who have owned baseball teams that one soon realizes what a fetid miasma of human depravity it is that gathers for the annual “Owners Meeting,” in baseball. Bill Veeck stands alone–perhaps because he had a wooden leg, as a lonely emblem of common decency, one who was quickly run out of town and banned for life from the club for his efforts.

And yet has any of the worst of them ever fired his scouting department, attempted to drive off one of his most trusted executives and then refused to allow the most revered player in franchise history to retire without being besmirched by the stink of it all. Mark Lerner refusing to allow Stephen Strasburg to retire quietly, to doff his cap to the fans and find a way to rebuild a body ruined by baseball; THAT is a remarkably ugly thing and difficult to find within the annals of the game.

The Lerner family bought the Washington Nationals for $450 million in 2006 and were offered $2 billion when they put the team up for sale in 2022. Why they refused the offer is not known for certain, but the most oft-mentioned reason revolves around the Baltimore-Washington television rights dispute. That imbroglio originated when then Commissioner Bud Selig granted the tail—the Baltimore Orioles, the right to wag the dog—the Nationals–in perpetuity.

The endless litigation of those TV rights recently yielded a $100 million landfall to the Nationals. But the core of the dispute continues in the courts, and only a few short months after that windfall, Mark Lerner, now the primary owner after the passing of his father, fired most of his scouting department and has attempted to renege on his contract that pays Stephen Strasburg $37.5 million annually until the end of the 2026 season.

How many Cuban cigars and martinis did Scott Boras ply the Lerners with before getting them to sign Strasburg’s final contract? It was an awful baseball decision, but once done, how do you undo stupid?

I sought out a friend with a family member working in the front office of a Major League franchise that has found a way to remain competitive with few exceptions. “What is the industry assessment of the Nationals ownership and the situation in their front office these days?” I asked.

“Can you imagine how disheartening it must be to work for that organization, or to play for it?” was the response.

Work is seldom fun, but jobs for Major League baseball teams are considered a dream come true and many of those working in the front office of a Major League team have degrees from Wharton or the equivalent. And yet somehow working for Mark Lerner is described as “disheartening.”

After the Nationals landed the first-round draft choice in 2009, the discussion was whether the Lerner’s–as new owners–had the acumen to sign a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Stephen Strasburg. But Ted Lerner forged a relationship that not only on-boarded Strasburg, but managed to sign Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in subsequent drafts, and somehow signed Juan Soto, who would prove another “once-in-a-lifetime” talent. As gratifying as that was for local fans—ending in a 2019 World Series win—the first since 1924, it came at a price.

Boras was the agent for those very notable draft signings, and Ted Lerner skimped on organizational talent smug in his belief that Scottie could beam up just about anyone that was needed. The best in managerial talent: Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, and Matt Williams, all were voted Manager of the Year for their success in DC, but fired the following year when no World Series win could be found. Such was the tempestuous desire of the Lerners for immediate gratification after becoming accustomed to rubbing elbows with Boras.

There are several ways to look at the current situation for DC baseball. As ugly a human being as Calvin Griffith was before and after leaving DC in 1961, Mark Lerner is digging a grave in remarkable proximity to the old racist. One might reasonably say, “That is one view.”

There is the flip side that says it is valid to fire Mike Rizzo and his scouting staff for their failure to develop a stronger organization despite a belief at the top that money spent in such a pursuit was secondary in importance. There is no denying that after the Nationals began winning NL East titles during the 2012-2019 run, their record at developing internal talent was abysmal.

And top talents like Lucas Giolito—drafted in the first round in 2013, were traded away for almost nothing after they failed to jet through the organization. The current Nationals MLB roster boasts no real stars except for Lane Thomas, but it is an agglomeration notable for how few players were successfully developed internally.

Is it fair to fire whoever signed Seth Romero in the first round of the 2017 draft? Absolutely. But to send most of the scouts packing? That is more difficult to understand. This writer is of the opinion that DC fans should hope that either Lerner or Rizzo comes to understand that it is time to move on.

The time is right for Lerner to put his own person at the top of the Nationals organization, one who understands the deep problems that plague the club and can demand the kind of autonomy that Mike Elias was given from the totally dysfunctional Angelos family. If there is any blue print the Lerner family should follow it is the one in Baltimore, because if the city that gave us, “The Wire,” can do it, anyone can.

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